One of the pleasing surprises of the 2016 Edinburgh Film Festival for me was the Belfast set black comedy drama A Patch of Fog from first time feature director and fellow Northern Irishman Michael Lennox. The movie stars Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones’ Lord Varys) as a celebrated novelist and TV personality who becomes the victim of a shop security guard who catches him shoplifting so blackmails him being his friend (as you do). The blackmailer is played by seasoned character actor Stephen Graham (the terrifying Combo in This is England, Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire).
I went to meet Lennox and Graham for an interview about the movie. What followed was horror stories about snake fights, tales of shooting in Belfast, and the constant presence of Stephen’s hulking, skin-headed, friend who he cryptically only ever referred to as “our kid”. We all sat down for a fascinating chat about this excellent gem.
Stephen, what did you think of the film? Have you seen it yet?
S: I haven’t seen it yet but I’m going to love it!
Has Michael told you they cut most of your parts? (this was my idea of a ‘hilarious’ ice breaker)
S: (Laughs) Yeah.
You’ve got a cameo in it!
S: That’s happened to one or two actors.
M: I’ve heard about actors turning up and they’ve been revoiced and they haven’t told them.
S: That’s out of order, especially if it’s one scene and you take your family with you and you’re ready to watch it and you’re going “watch watch” and it’s not your voice.
Then you have to use that voice for the rest of your life. That’s what they did with Gerry Adams. They used to dub his voice on TV.
M: Did they??
Yeah, maybe you’re just to young to remember. You weren’t allowed to have someone in a terrorist organisation talking on TV so they dubbed his voice with a guy from Emmerdale.
Yeah. Remember Butch Dingle? He was the voice of Gerry Adams on TV.
Anyway, Michael was the film always going to be set in Belfast?M: Yes.
So you just went for it, did anybody ever say…
M: It started off as a Northern Ireland screen project and the writers John and Michael’s whole intention would be to set it in Belfast because we haven’t maybe seen this type of story and I think we wanted to see a kind of fun quirky thriller that could be set anywhere so why not Belfast.
I went into it expecting something different and I was really amazed by where it goes and how funny it is.
S: Good because I thought you were going to say it was shit there!
It’s genuinely funny.
M: What interested me was the quirky tone because it to me it was this sort of reverse buddy movie but set in a bit of a thriller tone so it wasn’t just this dark dark dark…and I think that’s what made it funny. You weren’t quite sure what it was in a good way.
Do you think that kind of dark humor is a very Northern Irish thing?
S: And Scouse! The reason that I’m not Irish in it is because we decided it was my mother that was Irish so I’d been raised in Liverpool, because that’s the other Ireland basically, it goes back historically that Scousers more or less come from Irish and Scottish so my mum had lived in Liverpool with me, then we moved back because she was dying. So it kind of has a Norman Batesyness feel to it in many respects, which we talked about, so that’s great for that to come across in it and is justification as to why we had him living in Ireland.
Were you ever tempted to do an accent for the whole thing?
S: Not for this one.
Because you usually do, for example as Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire. Is it nice just to talk in your own Liverpool accent?
S: It is good to be able to use my own accent in many ways. We’ve just confirmed we’re doing a couple of films together, we shook on it so we’ll stick to it, he doesn’t want to piss me off. So we have got two projects that we’re doing together. In one of them I shall sport my finest accent.
It’s on tape now so you have to.
S: Exactly, it’s in stone now.
M: On the whole Belfast film thing, there’s a thing where a film’s set in Belfast so everyone has to be from Belfast and it’s not true. It’s a much more multi cultural city. Not saying we’re the head of culture, but we’re on the way.
Do you think that was a way of avoiding the usual thing you expect from a Northern Irish film that’s it’s about the troubles? Do think having characters from different places was something that set it apart?
M: Absolutely. I love troubles films, I don’t have a problem with troubles films, but I don’t want that to be all the type of films that come out and I think what’s happening now is we’re making good genre films and different types of films which I think is really important and we haven’t necessarily done before.
Well I said before that the film wasn’t what I expected. I was expecting creepy stalker film but it’s actually more about the lengths a famous person will go to to protect their fame.
S: And the lengths you’ll go to to cover up the reasons why you’ve got your fame. To me I’m working with Conleth, I thought Conleth was fantastic. As soon as Michael said from the start he wanted Conleth and he was going to bat for Conleth by any means necessary, to use Malcolm X’s term, and I was completely supportive of that. When we were together in a room having a rehearsal there’s no-one else who could have played it like Conleth but it was that kind of one man who’s lonely but tried to live his life as purely as he can compared to another man who appears on the outside to have everything but yet is completely living a lie. It’s that fine line.
So when you throw them together it’s explosive really.
M: And is a sense of fun. I think when you watch the film it’s almost as if they deserve each other. It’s not just “I’m a stalker get me away”, the guy’s inviting him round for dinner and secretly underneath it I think there’s a part of Conleth that quite likes it.
It seemed very natural. I’ve seen people who are friends behave like those two so it didn’t seem like two actors pretending.
S: No, for me he’s almost kind of like a pineapple. He’s spiky on the outside but really inside he’s sweet really. So it’s the weirdness of that against someone who is like a starfruit or something but it tastes all funny and horrible to me personally. So it’s that kind of interior and exterior of the character.
Well Robert’s actually likeable, they both are. Robert’s not a bad person.
S: No, not at all.
He just wants to be friends with somebody.
M: He’s very simple.
S: He wants a mate, he just wants a friend. And that was our way of tapping into it.
Was it nice for you? You usually play really awful people.
S: Yeah. You’re right, I do. Well, flawed.
S: Sociopaths, misunderstood. Now he’s not a sociopath but he finds it very awkward and he can’t really deal with public situations. Although he’s got that job but he’s not really good with people.
Michael, the film makes Belfast look really cool. Was that something you were trying to do?
M: (Laughs) We worked very hard!
Was that something you were trying for, to make it much more modern?
M: It’s just a reflection I think of where it’s at now. It’s a cliché but locations in any film are part of the character. We wanted it to feel vibrant and slightly to fight against red brick documentary style. We just wanted to be a bit more playful than that.
S: It’s like what you said before. No matter what, where it’s set, without it ever being mentioned it is a reflection of the troubles because we know the troubles are always there, or were always there, so I think this is moving on in that respect we never mention it because there’s no need to mention it now. It’s moved on and there is more hope there in that respect and it is an ever changing city. It was a great time of year that we shoot at, near Christmas time, so there was all the lights and it was lovely, a lovely time of year to shoot there. I think the area is a huge part of the film and where it’s set is very apt for this particular film.
There’s wee reminders though like the police station that looks like a fortress and things like that and so you know you are in Belfast.
S: And the estate where Robert lives.
M: That was mad.
S: The guy that owned the house with the snakes. His name was Steve but he was very close to the character. We were there one day and we had to wait. There’s a bit where I’m feeding the snake a mouse and we didn’t know how much work goes into feeding your snake. This mouse which is frozen and then had to be put under the light so the blood warms up and the scent of the blood can then be picked up by the snake. All that in itself was a fucking experience.
So that was you?
S: Well basically I think you used the shot of me. Let’s just get this right for a second. So Steve’s there and he’s lovely and he’s so persuasive in many ways because he’s really endearing but he’s asking me to put the mouse in and the snake will get it so I said well “let me have a go” and he said “no we can’t rehearse it”. I said why not, well because the snake’s been starving for four days and we’ve got one shot at this and don’t drop the mouse so when you say action you just do it. So I did it. It was a great insight for me to the character. You know that patient, pensiveness really gave me an understanding of the character and gave me a good understanding of that kind of loneliness but in the same respect, in my head I’m going “don’t drop the thing” but when it went in it fucking went for it and I shat myself but as the character I’m still there with it so that was a great insight.
Now you know how David Attenborough feels.
M: Steve’s (the snake owner) the kind of person who would say ”this snake will never bite you. Mind you he’s bitten me four or fine times…” so he was a big representation for the character. We nicked a bit of him for Robert.
Some of my favourite scenes were when Robert’s was in the university night classes. How did he get into that?S: It’s one of those you can go along and see if you like it. He’s intelligent in his own way…
And he wants to learn but he’s a bit nuts.
S: Well that’s the other thing. I said to Michael please be careful, if I do go to far please pull me back. I didn’t want to play the typical kind of “oh watch me, aren’t I weird” but from the beginning he came up with a great idea and said kind of on the spectrum of aspergers. I watched quite a few documentaries and The Undateable’s thing and it was that thing of not wanting to show them as pathetic human beings but real people who have things to struggle with. Real life situations and like I say, he is quite awkward in social situations but yet he does a job where he’s extremely fastidious. Here’s got a strong definition of what’s right and wrong.
But he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong.
S: No, not at all.
And he kind of isn’t.
M: I never wanted to have this kind of…
Fatal attraction type thing?
M: Yeah I didn’t want to have that bunny boiler type thing. It’s fairly simple. He catches a guy in his office and I wanted it to be a slow build.
Everybody knows someone a bit like that.
M: That’s also a thing. You do know a wee mate like that who’s like “just one drink, come on it won’t hurt”.
And if you don’t know someone like that it’s probably you.
S: (Laughs) That’s a good way of looking at it!
M: (Laughs) That’s a good point! But I was about to say I don’t know someone like that!
It’s the funniest film I’ve seen at the festival.
S: I’m glad you said that because I’ve said quite early on in the interviews about the humor. They’ve said yeah (not very enthusiastically) and I’m like “it’s a black comedy!”
There was so much laughing at the press screening and usually those guys are quite snobby and they don’t laugh, they just write down something but they were laughing.
Thanks again to Stephen and Michael for chatting to me. And thanks to “our kid” for not battering me. If you missed my review of A Patch of Fog you can find it here. The film is released in selected UK cinemas on 8th July and available on VOD from 11th July.